Here In My Home - Malaysian Artistes For Unity

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Fishy Claim Ahead

I don’t know what it is about Singapore’s predilection to claim many common favourite dishes as originating from their little island as I may have reflected previously. Recently I was watching an Asian Food Channel show that tried to trace the origins of Fish Head Curry that is claimed to have been originated from there as was also featured in other international food shows including Bobby Chin’s World Café Asia. The difference here was that the show at least showed that there was three possible sources of origin, though the claim was still that fish head curry was invented there.

The show started with the assiduous restaurant claim to the invention, supposedly by the patriarch of Muthu Curry Restaurant who said they were the first to get the idea to offer previously discarded fish head into such a delectable dish in 19XX that has remained as the primary destination in Singapore to get the South Indian Fish Head Curry. But the name South Indian curry gets me thinking, even though it may be referring to the style of curry cooking does not the name itself indicates that fish head is not such a strange ingredient to be made into a curry. Indulge me to the end why I think this to be a not so strange conclusion to make.

Where the claim takes a surprising turn is when the proprietor of a halal Chinese Restaurant, a certain Mr Ng asserted that it was him that actually came up with such a dish in the early 50’s after experimenting with the curry mix when he was a stall helper in the vicinity of Indian restaurants that he learned from to how make a curry. Offering a less spicier version in his restaurant called Our Makan Shop, the curry actually looked like the typical Nyonya or Straits Chinese curry prevalent in the region. It is not a surprise that the Nyonyas after centuries of assimilation managed to develop their own curry version, but Mr Ng offered no reason why he was inspired to serve fish head in curry form as an original dish or why it was he alone who tinkered with such a concoction. As I am no Nyonya culture expert, I am unable to ascertain if Nyonya food has featured fish curry as a recent invention or it has a been generational food inherited through the ages as it should be. In addition, I have seen fish head dishes as a gourmand delicacy in mainland china, so I do not think it takes a long stretch of imagination for the Chinese of the region to turn the fish head into a curry dish in a version of their own down the ages.

The argument is also furthered by the fact that the Malays, in this show in particular, actually has had fish head in curry form in their traditional cuisine although for them it is actually gulai or a spiced gravy dish. Well if you think about it gulai is a version of curry though the Malay spice mix is actually more piquant than a typical curry spice. But I can vouch that the Malays do not treat fish head as a separate curry in itself, as all parts of the fish will be thrown in into the curry in their cooking. In a culture familiar with scarcity and that discourages wastage, the fish head may be the favoured part reserved for the head at the family table, but all parts of the fish will be thrown in the pot, as you can also find in their other dishes like soups, assam and such.

Thus I suspect that Fish Head Curry is really a creation of the poor if it was really true that the large fishes’ heads was previously discarded or sold at a discount in the market. It may have been a wise restaurateur who decided that why waste a good portion of his fish supply by adapting a poor man’s recipe and elevating it as a gourmet’s dish it has become. As whether the origin of this wise fellow is Singapore or otherwise, that is still a subject that can be contested. Other regional points of fish head curry madness will deign to do so if they ever managed to stop to ruminate about such claims from their more important quest for the best fish head curry in town. To quote Singapore’s own Makansutra Guru K. F. See Toh, “ Why You wanna talk when there’s good food ah?”
Post-Script 29/11/07 - I must admit I was intrigued when I read in Makansutra that another story about the origins of fish head curry is that the Punjabi soldiers brought it with them. Like he said I have never seen such a dish in my Punjabi friend's home. Digging into this lo and behold it seems that the Indian Bengali's are proponents of fish head dishes that it is even a special wedding dish. And then you can also find Goan Fish Head curry on the menu of Indian Cuisine. Thus as I usually suspect in such cases, fish head curry does have its origins in the home country of the immigrant race that popularises it locally. Only it would much localised that it may no longer resemble the original home cuisine. Same case as Roti Chanai/Pratha. Case Closed Singapore!

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